Here’s the race report from my very first ultra marathon, and hopefully not my last! There’s something about the atmosphere in an ultra that no other races have. In marathons and below, most people so focused on their personal goals, that they don’t really share the journey with the other races – a bit of an ironic thing given that they are also typically rather crowded. For the most part, all you hear are hundreds of footsteps and heavy breathing, with the thick smell of sweat. The energy levels are high, of course, which is great, but on the whole, I find those events rather stressful.
What I found different about this ultra (and I’m guessing most others would be similar), was that the atmosphere was really casual (at least at the bottom half of the pack where I was!). Everyone was more than keen to pull alongside for a chat, and just enjoy the beautiful weather and that small part of the journey in the company of another runner, even if it was just for five minutes or so. There would also be times where I was by myself entirely, and could just get lost in nature, the odd bird-call and the rustling breeze the only melodies to hear.
Anyway, here’s how it went….
There was a chill in the air at the start line, and everyone was buzzing with excitement. The cool morning air sent me into shivers as I removed my hoodie. My dad insisted I was nervous – I didn’t bother arguing – but it really was the cold. My mind was relatively blank. Heart rate was steady and I was unsure of what to expect. Would my niggly glute/hamstring hold up even past the first 4km? Was the sand going to be soft and a nightmare to run on? Probably the only two things going through my mind. Before I knew it, a 30 second coundown was on, and off we went!
Running west along the beach, the field began to spread quite quickly. The sand was solid, to my delight. Just soft enough to cushion my footfall, but firm enough for me to run at whatever pace I chose. I settled into a relatively quick pace of 6min/km in the hopes of warming up a little sooner. I felt a tingle high up in my right leg, which I quickly made a point of ignoring, and a couple of minutes in, heard a familiar British accent creeping up behind me. Sure enough, it was ironmen Rob and his equally insane friend Brendan, who had both charitably put up with me on our recce run of leg 3 a few weeks back. Brendan was running just 4 weeks after being diagnosed with a broken ankle! Keeping pace with them would have been a DNF ticket for me, so after a quick friendly chat, I let them head on whilst I stuck to my own little trundle.
The first 4km was a loop which took us back past the starting point, where my Dad and Keith were waiting to collect my head lamp, now that the sun rays were just starting to put a blue glow into the partly cloudy sky. A couple of quick splashes across the shallow river mouth, and we were running east along the beach towards checkpoint 1. The view was phenomenal. Tall shadowy cliffs to the left, the wet, firm sand a glassy mirror reflecting the warm orange hues of one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve seen, silhouetted by a line of runners stretching as far as the eye could see.
I saw an older couple who were running at roughly the same pace as I was – the gentleman excitedly snapping pictures of his partner who was also clearly enjoying the experience. At that point, we were keeping roughly the same pace, so this would be a sight I got to enjoy with a chuckle several times over the next hour. They would later finish over an hour earlier than I did, so hats off to them!
The serenely beautiful environment was really calming, and I was able to keep a steady pace without much thought, all the way up to Red Rocks, where we were faced with a bit of a rock scramble, and the first test of my glutes. The very first push up onto a waist high rock and my hamstring whined in protest, but quickly settled down. I brushed it aside again, and waited in line – the rocks forming a bit of a chokepoint. Everyone just waited in line – we did have all day, after all! A short stretch of beach, a few flights of stairs, and we were at checkpoint 1, where Dad and Keith were ready, all smiles and waves. I grabbed my bottles and headed down the other side of the headland, back down onto the sand.
The second half of leg one proved to be slightly more challenging. The beach was somewhat steeper, meaning that there was a significant camber, which did put some strain on my knees and hips. It was also interspersed with sections of rock hopping and coral, which would have been fun, except they were slick as ice, with alot of them covered in moss. After losing 15 minutes to the first one, I subsequently opted to just run through the shin-deep water where I could. Being in the later half of the pack also meant that the tide was beginning to come back in, forcing me in sections back on to the softer sand. I pressed on, and reached the last rocky outcropping just before CP2, where I was given a choice of climbing over the rocks and taking a nearly 2m jump down onto the sand, or wading across nearly waist deep water. I hadn’t prepared for this choice, and changed my mind three times, which cost me a good five minutes. I ended up choosing the wade over the jump – the next CP was near so I was just 700m or so away from a new set of clothes. And better wet than messing with my newly healed hamstring so early on in the piece.
As we ran along the beach, I ended up chatting with a young lady who was also running her first 100k. A marked difference I noted between the marathon and shorter running races I’d run previously, and this ultra, was that this was such a friendly event. Practically everyone I met (at least for the first 70km or so) was up for a chat, be it the other solo runners who had all day, or even the team participants who were powering along to hand on the baton at the next leg. We reached point danger and trotted up the concrete footpath (which felt really weird having run on sand and uneven rock for the past 2 and a half hours), and in to CP2, where I found Rob and Brendan again, as well as my ready and waiting crew.
A quick change of clothes and a toilet break, and I was ready to go. Dad and Keith did a smashing job, reloading my pack with food and drink, and emptying out the trash. In less than 10 minutes, I was back on the move, running along the clifftop trails towards CP3. The flat, firm, beach sand was now replaced by hard-packed but even coastal trail, that gently rose up and down in an undulating fashion. The sun was now up in full force, and the mercury was starting to rise. I made an extra point to keep on top of my hydration. The costal cliff-top trail had a road running alongside it for the most part, so my trusty support team was popping up every five to ten minutes or so to cheer me on. The weather was great, but this section of the course was relatively mundane – the high shrubs on either side of the path meant that unless you took the short detours out to the viewing points, there wasn’t really much to see, and I certainly wasn’t going to add any additional distance to my already long and arduous journey ahead.
I stuck to my strategy, staying conservative, and walking all the uphills, making up time on the downs. All that downhill running practice in Lysterfield paid off – I felt comfortable and confident pattering down even the steepest slopes with almost no brakes on. The KMs flew by, and before long, we left the coastal trail for the forest, and met the first significant climb of the day, a five minute walk or so. Right at the top of that, as I was running through the needle like leaves of the bushboys, my left leg caught a stump, and I landed full force on my right – the one with the niggly hamstring. A wave of pain surged through my leg, and I slowed back down to a walk. It seemed to settle down, but now felt tight. It was too obvious to ignore, so I spent the next 15 minutes running worried and slowly. Thankfully, a pleasant lady by the name of Asha rocked up beside me and started a conversation which definitely helped take my mind off the leg and back into enjoying the event. We pulled up into CP3 – the crew were there and had everything ready for me. I grabbed my bottles and a honey sandwich, and headed back on.
The stretch from CP3 to CP4 was something I had totally underestimated in training. The course described it as “undulating”. Well it was certainly that, as well as being a narrow singletrack generously peppered with rocky technical sections or slick muddy bits. On top of this, I missed one of my nutrition points, and skipped a gel. No big deal? not really – at nearly 40km it was enough to throw me off my rhythm. I only realised what was happening when my energy levels took a sudden nosedive. The next hour or so was spent struggling along through the ups and downs, trying to get my energy levels up and managing my hydration, all the while being passed by various people. The temperature was now significantly warmer, and to compound my nutrition issues was the need to ration my drink to last the 17kms between CP3 and 4. The long, exposed sections of fire road allowed the sun to beat down on me mercilessly. I kept my head down and just focused: Everyone who passed me had the same advice: Just keep putting one foot in front of the other – something I certainly took to heart!
Towards the end of the leg, I passed someone who was walking down a hill – a little strange I thought. I found out that his race was unfortunately coming to an end due to injury – after going through all that, I certainly felt a pang of sympathy for him. I wished him well, checked that he was alright for supplies, and carried on. Dad was waiting for me on a short steep climb, just to say hi. It certainly provided a bit of a morale boost, but by this point, I was also aware that I was falling behind schedule – I was due in at CP4 at 11:30. It was already 11:25 and I had a good 4-5kms to go.
A few minutes further on, I met another chap who was having a bit of a walk. It was all part of his plan, he was taking it easy, so I decided to just jump on the bandwagon and have a bit of a walk break, chatting with him about how crazy we were for spending this glorious Saturday morning this way. The walk break was all I needed to let my nutrition catch up with me. We came up on a hill and I suddenly realised my legs felt fresh again. I bade my new friend goodbye, and bounded down the hill with a renewed agility and lightness in my step. Spirits remained high as I finally arrived at the beach (and had to jump into the sea since it was high tide), and ran into CP4 where my trusty team, now consisting of Keith, Natalia and Justin had all my items spread out for me. Justin ran through my pre-prepared checklist with me, whilst I changed my socks and shoes. Natalia grabbed a pair of vegemite sandwiches for me – I managed to eat one, but after all the sickly sweet gels and honey sandwiches, it was like eating a whole canister of sour plums, minus the sweet aftertaste. Yuck. I grabbed an extra cup of Hydralite from the station, packed on an extra hand-carry bottle of powerade, and left the checkpoint to face the toughest leg of the course – Leg 3.
Just 2 minutes out of the checkpoint, I decided to slow to a walk, and have a gel. I bumped into my dad, who decided to walk along with me, and we saw Rob and Brendan up ahead, just about to take on the stupid bridge crawl. Apparently it was too costly/difficult to get clearance for a formal road crossing to be organised, so all runners were required to cross the road by crawling under the bridge, which at points was no more than 50cm high. I decided to tackle the crawl on my bum, and I have a nice thimble sized hole in my CW-X tights to show for it now. A quick bit of complaining about the ridiculous bit of obstacle clearing with Rob and Brendan, and they went on ahead once again It would be the last time I saw them for the day – they would finish ahead of me by just over an hour in 14:45!
For the most part, I prefer to run races for the first time on race day. Not knowing what to expect keeps things interesting, especially when you’re going to be out there for a few hours. However, given the challenge this leg posed, both in terms of length and elevation, I was glad that I had been through a dry run just a couple of weeks before. I met a man named Peter along the way – he was definitely looking alot stronger than I was feeling. He had a quick few words of encouragement for me and slipped on by – walking (I was in a slight jog). And then I was alone, with no one in sight, either ahead or behind. All this while my cousins had been texting me (and each other) on whatsapp, tracking my progress, so I thought, what the heck, and whipped out my phone to have a read. What they all had to say was a huge encouragement, and on retrospect, it probably came right on time, or I would have had hit a low which might have cost me a good 30 minutes or so. Instead, I found a new tap of energy and pushed on.
By this time, the rainclouds had started to cover the sky, and odd droplets of rain were falling every now and then. The cooling effect was most welcome – in the heat, I had finished my handheld bottle just 15 minutes into the leg (should have just drank the lot before leaving!). The cool change meant that my limited water supply was more likely to last the long journey ahead. CP4-CP5 was the longest stretch of the race, 21km (a half marathon!) containing the most elevation gain of any section in the course. It was also the leg which allowed for the least amount of contact with my support crew, so I was really glad to see them there at the 59km mark, about half-way to CP5.
Entering into the Currawong Falls single track I settled back into my rhythm and prepared to tackle the longest climb of the day. Rhythm in trail running is different from a road race. There is no target pace – just a target feel. You run, jog, or even walk according to the terrain, all the while trying to maintain your level of exertion. The gentle climb went really well, smoothly transitioning between an easy jog on the gentle gradients, to a power walk on the steeper or more technical bits. My heart rate remained low and steady, and I enjoyed every minute of it. The higher end of the hill was covered in wildflowers of bright yellow, purple and red. It was beautiful. I took my time, not paying attention to my pace, but ended up clearing the 6.5km climb in just over an hour. Not too bad given the 66 km I already had in my legs to that point! The 4km descent flew by quickly as I was expecting to see my dear wife J and our darling hub at the hydration checkpoint. I rolled in, a little tired but brimming with anticipation, only to be disappointed. Don’t get my wrong, the crew were awesome – Justin snapping his pictures, Keith and Natalia cheering their lungs out, but I really wanted to give E a cuddle! Nevermind, I thought, it’s just 7.5km to the next CP, I”ll just smash it out. I grabbed my bottles, dropped off the spare handheld, and headed off to CP6.
I did anything but smash it out. The trail entry marker after distillery creek picnic grounds summed up the next 7kms pretty well: Short, steep hills. None of the climbs were runnable at that point. Even though I’d come through this section during the recce, it felt tonnes harder, and the cloud cover was all but gone by now. By the time I hit the last climb after the Painkalac Reservoir dam (aptly named with pain as the first four letters), I was sapped. At least six people passed me on the climb. All walking as well, but clearly I was struggling as they all strolled by me as if I was standing still. Peter from earlier on came up from behind again – I don’t remember passing him at all on any of the trails, so I must have got ahead at a CP thanks to my crew. Nevertheless it was the same as before. He looked fresh! I managed a grimaced smile and a weak joke, and plodded on as he made good time ahead of me with his companions. The sharp 2km descent after was equally torturous – the fast twitch fibres in my quads felt spent, so I reduced to a trot down the hill. 200m out from CP6, I heard massive cheers going up for the runners ahead of me, and that, combined with knowing who would be waiting for me, gave me a new burst of life. I picked up the pace and ran into CP6, past the camera wielding Justin, only to have a chubby grinning baby thrust into my arms! E was all bubbles and smiles, and didn’t care that I probably smelt like a garbage truck on a hot rainy day. One cuddle was better than all the gels and powerade in the world. A quick switch to night gear, a mouthful of the blandest risotto I have ever tasted, and I left CP6 to face the final leg of the race.
The hilly, hot and long legs 2 and 3 had taken their toll on my body. I started to notice a slight pain in my foot, which would ease once I picked up the pace. Surprisingly, all the injuries I was worried about before the race, like my glute/hamstring, and my tib post tendon, all seemed to have settled down and were not bothering me at all. There were two decent climbs to face in the 9km between CP6 and CP7, and light was fading. The first climb topped out with a spectacular view over Moggs Creek and out to the sea, which I remember being beautiful – but this time I was chasing down a clock. I had already given up on meeting my goal time of 14 hours – clearly too big a stretch for me – but I was determined to come in under 16 hours to avoid going home empty handed – I wanted that beer stein! I skipped the view and plodded down the gnarliest rocky bit of single track downhill of the course, treading gingerly to save my ankles. The team was there waiting for me in Moggs Creek town, with the brand new additions of Michael andRachel, providing some very welcome moral support, and another welcome glimpse of my dear son.
The following climb along Old coach road and past the antenna array just before Airey’s Inlet was somewhat uneventful. I swallowed a chocolate GU and held a steady 7:30km/min up the gentle inclines, and powerwalking the short steep sections. The light faded, and with it, it took a bit of my spirit away. I descended into Airey’s Inlet on a low note, and then it started to rain. Great. I felt lousy, it was dark and wet, and to top it off, I even had to get under another bridge. This crossing was much higher than the first – I could stand up, more or less – but there were next to no footholds. It was essentially a horizontal rock scramble, not something you want to deal with after 86km. The ten metres under the bridge took a monstrous five minutes to clear. I came out the other side grumbling and at an all time low. The flat, concrete footpath should have been fast, but I struggled to hold a 10 min/km pace – something I would have laughed at under normal circumstances. A look at the clock – I had 2hr 30min to clear the last 14km of the course. I could do that distance in 1hr 10min on fresh legs easily, but knowing my current condition, I knew it was going to be close. I just had to hold it together.
The faithful team was waiting for me at CP7. I grabbed my supplies, and trudged up towards the lighthouse – they tailed me in the cars as far as they could, willing me on with words of encouragement. I felt drained, but stayed focused on the same piece of advice I received earlier – just put one foot in front of the other. The clifftop course was supposed to be flat, but in reality it was made up of tiny ups and downs, each no more than ten seconds of climbing or descending. A piece of cake compared to the earlier sections of course, but in my exhausted state it certainly did me no favours. The 4km to Sunnymeade beach took me 42 minutes to clear. Over 10 minutes/km. My 16 hour backup goal was now also slipping out of my reach. I descended the stairs painfully, trudged across the energy sapping sand, only to be faced with the steepest flight of stairs in the course. And it didn’t help that they had no handrails! My legs were mush – I nearly fell over backwards twice walking up those stairs.
The following 3km of singletrack was mud soaked, narrow, and had the odd tree root now and then just waiting to snare my foot. I tripped twice, but I was going so slowly that I didn’t even stumble much. I took nearly 40 minutes to clear those 3kms. The descent to Urqharts beach was pure frustration. J and Dad were waiting for me in the carpark below. I couldn’t even put up a show for them – I hobbled through the carpark, grunting a “hi”, and complaining about the pain in my foot, which had now intensified to a deep, dull ache. I trudged through the first bit of soft sand, and found that the tide was still out – there was a generous platform of solid wet sand to run on. I looked at my watch – about 1 hour 10 minutes to go, 7 kms to cover. I could make it, but I would have to dig deep. So I did. I picked up the pace to 7:30/km – nothing to crow about I know, but at the time, it was all I could manage. The adrenaline kicked in, and dulled the pain in my foot. I pushed on, and the 3km of beach flew by in just over 20 minutes. I passed one runner along the way – a relatively rare ocurrence for me given that, for the past five or so hours, it was usually me that was being passed. I dropped a few words of encouragement, but was only replied with a nod and a grunt. He must have really been hurting. I hit the end of the beach run and headed up the steps, and that was where the pain in my foot came back in full force. It was one of the tendons or muscles involved in foot dorsiflexion, so everytime I picked my left foot off the ground to go up a step, I was meet with a searing stabbing pain on the top of my ankle. Not now! I gritted my teeth dragged my left leg up the flight of steps, and then forced myself to jog through the streets of Anglesea through the final 4km of the course. I had just under 45 minutes to go – all I had to do was churn out a 10min/km pace. Surely I would make it!
I trotted down the first street, and suddenly realised it had been a long time since the last pink tape. Had I taken a wrong turn? I stopped. Why now?? I fumbled with google earth, but my ancient iPhone 4 went on strike, crashing twice and just taking forever. I lost 6 minutes wandering back and forth when on a chance turn of the head caused my headlamp to catch a fluttering strand of pink tape obscured by foilage. I was on the right track all along, but my doubts had cost me precious time, and the stop had caused me to start cooling down. I dropped my head and pressed on in a slow jog, desperately trying to loosen up the tight muscles. The pain in the foot was nagging as ever, but I did all I could to shove it to the back of my mind, and carried on. The 2km of coastal walk which we had passed at the start of the race now felt twice as long – each climb felt twice as steep and I was in no shape to pick up time on the downhills. One foot in front of the other – that was all I could think.
After an eternity, I finally popped out of the trail onto a sealed driveway which lead me back to the beach. Not far to go! A man was there – he might have been a course marshall – he said “you’re in with a chance – you have 9 minutes to go and it’s about a K away. I thanked him and pulled up all the reserves. I had been struggling to pull 10min/km at this point, but I would never forgive myself if I missed the 16 hour mark by a mere minute. The soft sand gave beneath my feet, sapping the energy out of every step – keep the steps small, flat and light, I remembered. Before I knew it, I saw some strange pink glowsticks in the sand. I was at the rivermouth already! Even before the finish line was in sight, I heard the voices of my crew yelling “come on Chris! Seven minutes to go!”. The man had been wrong, – it was just another couple of hundred metres, which was a delightful surprise! I rounded the bend and was met with the sight of the glow of the finish line lights, and Keith waiting on the footpath. All pain had gone at that point – replaced with pure ecstasy. I powered through the last fifty metres and across the line, flooded with happiness, relief, and a huge sense of accomplishment. A race offical came up to me to congratulate me, and handed me the silly glass mug I had endured so much pain to get. It didn’t matter – I was glad to be back in the company of family and friends again. Even E had stayed up past his bedtime to welcome me back!
And just like that, the most epic thing I have ever done to date, had come to an end. It’s an experience I will treasure for years to come, and it’s opened up a whole new meaning to the word “possible” for me. I’m hugely grateful to God for watching over me, and to my awesome friends and family who supported me, especially those there with me on the ground. Will I do this again? If given the chance, of course! I’ve already started planning – but right now I have a left foot the size of a footy ball to deal with, so lets cross that hurdle first!